Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Eager To Leave Prison Behind

Meet Tyrone White, Ronnie Williams and Mike Malgannon.

The first is a heroin dealer, the second a drunken driver, the third a former prescription drug and methamphetamine addict.

Right now, they're doing time at Folsom State Prison. But if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's early-release plan becomes law, the three will head home to their old neighborhoods in Stockton, Sacramento and Pollock Pines a little sooner rather than later.

Under the governor's proposal, there would be more than 22,000 prisoners getting out early all across the state over the next two years – not to mention the future non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenders who would never be sent to prison at all if their sentences were less than 20 months.

The Schwarzenegger plan "is the talk of the camp," said White, 36. Like other inmates interviewed Friday, White works in Folsom's minimum-support facility. These lowest-level offenders would be among the first freed if lawmakers approve the early releases.

"I like it, and I hope it happens," said White, who is serving 3 1/2 months for violating parole on his underlying conviction for heroin sales.

"There's a lot of people who are in here for petty crimes and petty violations that are taking up space and causing a deficit," White said. "It's a lot of optimistic people in here now, hoping it happens, hoping they're qualified, wondering if they're not."

Schwarzenegger's proposal seeks to cut $1.1 billion from California's prison expenditures over the next two years, as part of an effort to balance a state budget that is $14.5 billion out of balance.

His plan calls for releasing 22,159 prisoners in the final 20 months of their term if their criminal histories permit.

By statute, offenses that would be excluded from such a plan include murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, robbery, burglary, rape and a variety of other sex crimes.

The administration is asking the Legislature to exclude about 25 more types of offenders from early release: stalkers, spouse beaters, child and elder abusers, bomb makers, weapons violators and false document manufacturers, among others.

Eligibility, then, would be restricted to the remaining lower-level offenders – crank dealers, crack smokers, heroin shooters, car thieves, petty kleptomaniacs, drunken drivers, perjurers and the like.

Barry Krisberg, president of the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, made a presentation in Sacramento last summer saying that early releases for these types of inmates could work and actually result in crime reductions if they are accompanied by extensive community-based programs to handle the shift from prison yards to city streets.

The governor's proposal, however, makes no mention of expanding such programs.

"This doesn't look like a very promising approach," Krisberg said of the governor's plan.

According to Krisberg, an early-release program can succeed only if the state screens the inmates to assess their risks and needs, sets up transitional housing programs for those who otherwise would be homeless, increases drug treatment and provides a lot more mental health counseling than is now the case.

Most befuddling, Krisberg said, is that the plan ignores the recommendations of an expert panel on prison overcrowding that the governor's own Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released last summer.

The panel's report said that the state could eliminate the need for 48,000 prison beds within two years and save up to $996 million annually by expanding time credits for offenders who complete prison rehabilitation programs and by not returning low-risk parolees to prison on minor violations such as missing meetings with their parole agents.

"That, to me, would have gotten to the same place in a more orderly fashion," Krisberg said.

Schwarzenegger's proposal calls for eliminating 6,000 prison jobs, including 4,500 sworn officers. Corrections officials say they'll probably need to lay off 2,000 prison cops to achieve the reduction number. But that was before they figured in a 3 percent annual attrition rate in a custody staff of more than 30,000, which could reduce the theoretical layoff number to a relative few.

Folsom correctional Sgt. Carl Kropp, for one, isn't worried about layoffs. He predicts they'll never happen.

"It's all political," Kropp said. "And there ain't nothing to cut," he added, citing the claim of the prison officers' union that the custody division already has 4,000 vacancies. "The only places would be in upper administration, and they're not going to cut those."

At Folsom's minimum-support facility, where inmates live in barracks and do the maintenance, plumbing, landscaping and other repair jobs outside the main prison walls, the mood was one of optimism among the blue-clad convicts.

Williams, 63, in the final months of his term for drunken driving, says he'll be looking for work at Wal-Mart and regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings when he goes home to Sacramento, early or otherwise.

"I think this is going to be beneficial to the inmates that don't really have priors, that can fit back into society," Williams said of the early-release plan.

Malgannon, 47, who has 14 months left on his methamphetamine possession conviction, said he'll go to work making tables out of wine barrels at his sister's business in Pollock Pines when he gets out.

"I think it's a great idea," he said of early release.

Correctional Sgt. Terry Bridges, a minimum-support supervisor, spends his days with inmates like White, Williams and Malgannon. He thinks most of them will do fine if they get out of prison early.

"I'm not opposed to it," he said of the plan. "I think we need to do something besides muddle along until it blows up on us."

Sacramento Bee